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Confusion and Mystery of Shenzhou-2 Mission Deepens

Shenzhou-1 being unloaded in Beijing after its flight in November 1999.
by Cheng Ho
Tokyo - Feb 27, 2001
Comments from a key Chinese space official have raised yet more confusion with the science experiments conducted on the recent flight of the Shenzhou-2 (SZ-2) mission and their fate after landing.

In an interview with Changjiang Daily and published on Feb. 7, Dr. Liu Yongding, Payload Manager of the life science studies on SZ-2 and a principal investigator of the life sciences experiments, ridiculed previous media reports of an experiment on fruit fly reproduction on the mission.

China Space News, a major Chinese-language aerospace publication in China, published some details of the life science experiments in the Jan. 11 edition.

The report included a description of the fruit fly experiment that Dr. Liu provided during a preflight media tour at a Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) laboratory at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (JSLC) in the northwestern Gansu Province.

According to the account in China Space News, in the fruit fly experiment the flies were housed in test tubes with nutrients filled at the bottom.

There were twice as many male flies as female because a male fruit fly tended to engage with more than one partner. The purpose of the experiment was to study reproduction and egg laying in the microgravity environment.

The China Space News report was republished in People's Daily and widely distributed by the Xinhua News Agency on the same day.

But now in what can only be described as a scolding tone, Dr. Liu told Changjiang Daily that media reports of the fruit fly experiment were "pure speculation and nonsensical" and that the irresponsible reporting had caused embarrassment to scientists at JSLC during and after the mission.

Dr. Liu said, "China has just started research in space life sciences. How can we conduct these so-called "love-making" experiments when there are many more subject matters to study to ensure the safety of yuhangyuans (astronauts) in space? Certain media reports were absolute nonsense while other reports tied unrelated experiments to the Shenzhou-2 mission."

When asked about the report that there was a monkey, a dog, a rabbit and small snails among the live biological specimens on board, Dr. Liu, who is a CAS member, refused to comment.

In the tightly controlled Chinese media, the contradictory remark not only adds more confusion to the identity of the science experiments but it also deepens the mystery to the conclusion of the mission.

The fate of Shenzhou-2 remains unknown despite claims from Chinese space officials that the spacecraft landed without incident and was now in Beijing.

But with not a single photo of the spacecraft released after landing there has been increasing speculation that the mission ended badly. One source quoted on the Swedish Space Center's daily news page, quoted an unnamed source as saying "the lack of photos was due to a 'hard touchdown' after one of the connections on the single parachute broke during the descent. The damage was minimal and the occupants of the capsule were unharmed."

However, further deepening the mystery as to the fate of Shenzhou-2 is a report in this week's edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, that the head of the China Aviation and Space Administration had been scheduled to give a rare press briefing about the space programme to foreign media on February 9, but the event was abruptly postponed without explanation on February 8, and that no new date has been set.

Meanwhile, the orbital component of the Shenzhou-2 mission is reportedly alive and well having executed yet another orbital maneuver to raise the orbital height of the spacecraft.

After 42 days in space, the SZ-2 Orbital Module is circling the Earth in an orbit of 386.4 km x 400.2 km with an inclination of 42.6 deg and a period of 92.4 minutes. The recent orbital maneuver brought the Module back to an orbiting altitude almost as high as when it was initially left alone in space after the SZ-2 Descent Module returned on January 16.

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Shenzhou-2 Experiment Racks Included Crystal Growth Furnance and Biological Systems
Beijing - Feb 23, 2001
The recent Shenzhou-2 (SZ-2) mission delivered a batch of life science experiments into orbit for a seven-day voyage in space last month and now reportedly back in the hands of scientists in Beijing.